Tag Archives: occupational

Unpaid Internships: Opportunity or Oppression?

8 Feb


 Recently the subject of work internships has become  part of the national conversation.  The topic  has shown up in articles,  books, television shows,  and even a  debate  on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. It hit home as our  youngest son is more than halfway through an unpaid internship at a business in Manhattan.  Like most young people completing internships,  he has been lead to believe and hopes it will result in  a full time job. Ben Zarov,  an intern at Publishers Weekly, recently posted on-line  the  following   joke  which sums up one  current perspective on internships:  “How many interns does it take  to screw in a light bulb? [Answer]  Who cares it’s free.” 

In psychology, social work, and related fields,  internships, field placements, and practicums have always been  a big part of the standard curriculum. They are often closely connected to licensure and certification requirements.  Before she finished graduate school in psychology, my wife Diane had done an internship and four practicums in a variety of settings. I, on the other hand, had dodged all of them like they were the plague. I somehow managed to graduate and get a job with as little practical experience as possible.

 It has been estimated that over one-half  million  young Americans will participate  in internship programs this year.  The number of interns has almost tripled over the last decade. Our   middle son says that most businesses in New York City rely so heavily   on unpaid interns they could hardly survive without them.     

According to a Pew Research Center report,  issued  in February, only 54% of young adults currently have jobs. That is the lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics back in the 1940s.    Youth unemployment   is usually  much higher than the adult rate, but it has been especially  hard hit by an economy which has forced many experienced adults  to flood the entry job market. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of  young adults  have taken unpaid jobs or moved back in with their parents due to the shrinking job market.  

While paid internships almost double the chance of a job offer after completion,  there is less evidence that unpaid internships are nearly  as beneficial.  The unpaid internship,  however,  is becoming  so familiar it has shown up on television.  In April  an unpaid internship  figured in the  premiere  episode  of the critically  acclaimed HBO television series,  Girls.     When Hannah, the lead character asks to get paid, she is unceremoniously  terminated  from  her   literary agency  internship in New York City,   after  giving them two years of free labor.  Upon hearing that she was let go,  her highly insensitive  boyfriend   says, “Weren’t you an intern? So they just asked you not to hang out there anymore?”

Under the U.S. Fair Labor and Standards Act, private sector internships are generally considered a form of paid employment.  Payment,  however,  may be withheld is there is (1) a strong training component, (2) the intern  doesn’t displace a regular employee,  and (3) the employer gains no direct immediate  benefit.    In theory   training and experience are the compensation that the intern supposedly accrues.  Internships are often the only way that young people can garner the experience and job skills that make them marketable in our fiercely competitive economy. Even when they lead to a job, many internships function simply as unpaid probationary periods. 

 It has been estimated nearly half of all unpaid internships are technically illegal and American businesses benefit from them  to the tune of over $600 million dollars annually  in free labor. 

In his 2011 book  Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Brooklyn-based writer  and former intern,  Ross Perlin examines the dark side of  internships, which for all practical purposes  have become the defacto  conduit  to a white collar  job in America.  He describes in  detail various questionable and  exploitive practices which have lead to situations such as a sexually harassed  intern, who couldn’t sue because she wasn’t considered a legal employee, and the Disney intern who ended up owing money to the Disney Corporation  after being charged  for rent. Disney currently has over 8,000 interns at Disney World alone.  Universities  also come under fire  for charging students exorbitant  tuition for participating in  internships under the school’s purview.  Even the White House, with its large unpaid internship  program, doesn’t  escape  unscathed in  Perlin’s exposé.

  Unpaid and exploitive  internships are most frequently seen in the  media, politics, publishing, arts, and entertainment industries. Finance, the sciences, and the law tend to have more traditional paid internship or work study programs.

In a February New York Times Op-Ed piece Perlin says,   “The well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket.” He says  it  is   time to enforce the law.  Other Western countries have also acted   to protect  interns.  In France,  for example,  interns are not paid wages,  but they must be given a  bonus if they work more than two months in one academic year.

Another criticism of   unpaid internships is that it perpetuates class differences. As the  new gateway to a professional career, unpaid internships may block the path for young people who cannot afford to work for free. In a recent lawsuit against the  Hearst Corporation, one intern claimed that unpaid internships  intensify class distinctions, reducing the capacity for social mobility in our society.

Even Perlin, however,  admits that genuine internships still exist that provide both learning  opportunities and  pathways to substantial employment.

My personal lack of an internship or practicums finally caught up with me.  Although I graduated  with a large number of credit hours,  it was almost all theory, with very little if any practice. When I started my first job as a new staff psychologist in Mississippi,   I had never actually seen a real life  client face-to-face  for counseling.  I was pretty much terrified when a surly adolescent boy was hauled into my office, after he had been kicked out of school for smoking.  I quickly discovered three things that college had not taught me: (1) Theory has its limits, (2) maybe an internship would have been helpful  and (3) perhaps I wasn’t nearly as clever as I had thought I was.